Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

The second volume of essays by Kathleen Jamie that I’ve read, more encounters with birds on lonely, windswept islands that have long been abandoned by humans, though traces remain of their earlier occupation.

If you have not yet read Kathleen Jamie, do check out my review of her first collection Findings, which I adored. It talks a little more about her writing and the difficulty her publisher had in describing her work, which defies categorisation, not exactly travel writing, not quite autobiography, a more accessible form of nature writing than we’ve seen before, seen through the eyes and in the prose of a poet.

In her trademark lyrical style, she travels with experts from whom she gleans bits of information, fascinating trivia, or alarming statistics that tell of a significant drop in population of certain species, but mostly she continues her mission of acute observation, of trying to see in the simplest terms something of the lives and patterns of behaviour of majestic winged creatures, who make long migrations each year and return to these islands to continue their heritage.

We learn more of her beginnings, of the archeological dig where she developed a fascination for uncovering secrets hidden beneath. She muses on microscopic observations in a science lab, writing about wind, light, the moon. We accompany her to the Arctic, witnessing giant icebergs on the move, the green lights of the aurora overhead. She visits to a museum in Norway where ancient whale bones dating from the mid 1800’s will be cleaned, restored, rehung, the melancholic weariness of their demise emitting an odour even after years of inhabiting this dusty dry interior.

The Gannetry

Jamie and friend take a picnic and visit a gannetry during mating season, they see much of what is expected, they’ve been there before, Jamie observes, looking for the unusual, she spots it in the sea, a straight line, something she doesn’t recognise until she does. A pod of orcas lead by the matriarch, she reflects on her role as mother, as her own children approach the age of leaving the nest.

The Woman in the Field

Jamie recalls being 17 years old, leaving school and rather than her mother’s suggestion of a library job or secretarial school, she delivers her to an archeological dig, to uncover a ‘henge’, a circle of stones seen from the air, where they’ll find a Bronze Age burial cist containing the skeleton of a woman and a well preserved pot, findings that will inspire a poem ‘Inhumation‘.

Aurora borealis
Source: Wikipedia M.Buschmann

Aurora

Polly asks Jamie what brings her to the Arctic north, to the freezing cold, to float alongside unleashed icebergs, watching green light phenomena in the sky.

It is the birds that lure Polly, though the geese have flown, that and an illness which awoke something that continues to push her to seek these experiences, while they remain possible.

For 30 yrs Jamie sat on cliff tops looking at familiar horizons.
Now she wishes to change her map.
Something is changing.

The Hvalsalen

The Bergen Natural History Museum in Norway houses the largest whale skeleton installation known. No one knows how they got there, whether they were hunted or stranded, they date from 1867.

About to close for 4 years for renovation and repair, Jamie is invited to return during the conservation work, she will spend hours sitting in the bones, smelling the still present odours, imagining, contemplating their previous majesty.

Pathologies

Musing in frustration on nature clichés: ‘nature takes it course’, (death of her mother) ‘reconnecting with nature’ (environmental activists) Jamie makes an appointment with a clinical consultant in pathology to observe the inner workings of the human body ‘nature’ and its mutations, tumours, cancer cells, infections, seen to the naked eye and under the microscope. She sees landscapes, shorelines, marshes. Looking at the lining of someone’s stomach, searching for bacteria, she notes the following:

Between the oval structures were valleys, if you like, fanning down to the shore. Frank wanted to show me something in one of those valleys and I couldn’t find it at first; it took several patient attempts – this microscope didn’t have a cursor device to point at things. It was a very human moment, a collusion of landscape and language when one person tries to guide the other’s gaze across a vista. What vistas I’d seen. River deltas and marshes, peninsulas and atolls. The unseen landscapes within. You might imagine you were privy to the secret of the universe, some mystical union between body and earth, but I dare say it’s to do with our eyes. Hunter-gatherers that we are, adapted to look out over savannahs, into valleys from hillsides. Scale up the absurdly small until it looks like a landscape, then we can do business.

‘There!’ said Frank. ‘Isn’t that a pastoral scene? They’re grazing!’

I had it: six or seven very dark oval dots, still tiny, despite the magnification, were ranged across the blue valley, like musk oxen on tundra, seen from far above.

Kathleen Jamie’s first collection of nature essays ‘Findings’

Her easy reading essays will also cover a lunar eclipse, three attempts to visit St Kilda, Neolithic caves and the passage of time in her own life, marked by the growth of her children into adolescence, on the threshold of young adulthood.

Fascinating and cosy reading to discover freezing cold, wind blown parts of the world that hold fascinating secrets that only the hardy voyager will venture to uncover. Enjoy reading them about from a more comfortable vantage point.

To buy one of her books, click the link below.

Kathleen Jamie’s essays via Book Depository

Findings by Kathleen Jamie

FindingsHer latest poetry collection The Overhaul recently won the Costa Prize for poetry, another accolade for this award-winning writer who has found her niche, her publisher previously having had difficulty placing her work in a clear genre.

Findings was, by anyone’s standards, a fiendishly tricky sell. Jamie’s choice of the essay form was unfashionable; her subjects (Orkney in midwinter, a pair of nesting peregrines, 21st-century flotsam on a Hebridean shoreline) were queer and disparate. Her publisher wasn’t even sure how the book should be classified. Travel writing? Not quite: none of the essays took Jamie outside her native Scotland; many were written from her own back door. Autobiography? The book was bewitchingly first-person, but there was no sense of a coherent memoir.

An extract from the Guardian’s Kathleen Jamie – A Life in Writing

 

Nesting Peregrine Photo by Christophe Cage, Wikipedia

I see them as wonderful nature essays, a form of creative non-fiction, much more than notes of a nature walk, though they are  inspired by her time on the Hebridean and Orkney Islands and near her home in Fife; but with the purpose of observing and learning to capture in words what she sees, without the need to analyse.  She describes watching ospreys and peregrines and shares her concern over whether they are nesting or not, there having been evidence of only two pair of these birds attempting to nest in the entire country.

She moves away from identifying and labelling what she sees, towards painting a picture with words, a description so apt, it is as if you are there with her as that large unknown bird she describes so vividly traverses the sky overhead.

This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

Visiting a few of the Scottish Hebridean Islands, Ceann Iar, Coll, meandering along the tide line of inlets, she and her companions find the washed up remains of a small whale, a bit of a plane and other flotsam including seal’s vertebrae, an orange traffic cone, driftwood and plastic garbage.

This is what we take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane: an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head.

Visiting a Shieling – from Twenty Years of Hebridean Memories (1939) by Emily McDonald

Traces of contemporary life at the water’s edge and higher up in the hills, she walks among remnants of an earlier life, the shielings, now abandoned summer huts made of stone and turf, built in the mountain pastures where girls often spent their summers, grazing the animals, receiving visits once a week to take back the cheese and butter they’d produced and to replenish their food stocks, not to mention the young men who paid calls on them in the evening, the time passing sharing local news, story-telling, fun and laughter.

The top of the year, the time of ease and plenty. The people would come up from the farmsteads below around the beginning of July – ‘the girls went laughing up the glen’ as the poem says – and return at harvest time. Up here, they made milk, butter and cheese, and it was woman’s work. What a loss that seems now: a time when women were guaranteed a place in the wider landscape, our own place in the hills.

Not only does Kathleen Jamie evoke something of the present and the past in her observations of these remote islands, she leaves you reminding yourself to pay more attention, to be mindful, to stop, to listen, to stand and stare, to look up – promising as a reward, a renewed connection to our surroundings and an appreciation of all the species that live and have lived within it.

To read Kathleen Jamie is the next best thing to a slow walk in that great living outdoors, I believe she has found the perfect niche.  I’m already looking forward to her next collection of essays ‘Sightlines‘. Do you have a favourite nature writer?